Producer Irwin Winkler recalls the origins of ‘Rocky’
Famous actors and mainstream directors are always talking to the press. It’s part of their job to help make people want to see their new movies. But it’s not too often that legendary producers – those folks that pull all the logistical pieces together – take the time to field a few questions. Irwin Winkler is a producing legend. His résumé goes back to the 1967 revenge classic “Point Blank,” and includes a pile of Martin Scorsese films (“New York, New York,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas”) and every entry in the series that started with “Rocky” and continues right up to the new “Rocky” spinoff “Creed.”
Winkler already had a successful career going when, in 1975, he was the only producer in Hollywood willing to take a chance on a script by then-little-known actor-writer Sylvester Stallone. The film that came out of that decision was “Rocky.” Winkler, now 84, took some time off from producing Scorsese’s current project “Silence” to join up with the cast and filmmakers of “Creed” at the front Street Gym in Philadelphia. He was asked one question: “Why did you say yes to Sly Stallone when no one else would?” He smiled at the question, and gave a lengthy, detailed answer.
“Sly showed up in our office at the behest of a friend of ours, as an actor, basically looking for a job. He didn’t have much of a reputation as an actor at the time. He had just done a couple of small films. One, called ‘The Lords of Flatbush,’ was actually quite good. So he came in, but we didn’t have a part for him. It was one of those meetings where you’re kind of glancing down at your watch and wondering how long is this gonna take.
“But as he was leaving the office he said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m a writer.’ He certainly didn’t look like a writer or act like a writer; he certainly didn’t look like Ernest Hemingway. But he sent in his script, and we read it. But it wasn’t ‘Rocky.’ It was another script, ‘Paradise Alley.’ We liked the writing a great deal, but we didn’t want to do that particular picture. We called him and said we liked the writing, and he said, ‘You know, I have an idea about a fighter.’ We invited him to come in, and he said, ‘I’ll write the script but there’s one provider. I’ll take a chance, and spend all my time’ – which didn’t take him very long, by the way – ‘writing it. But if you like the script, you have to star me in the movie.’ That took a lot of balls. We got the script, which he wrote in three weeks, and it was ‘Rocky.’
“The studio didn’t want to make the movie, but we had a kind of special deal where we could make a film without their OK, at a certain budget. Of course, they took Sly’s script and budgeted it at a higher figure [so we wouldn’t be able to make it]. It was like they’d do anything not to get Sly. So we came back and said we would do it for a lower number, and we would personally guarantee it and pay for anything over that number. At that point the studio wanted to buy the script from Sly, and they offered him $250,000 for it, so somebody else – either Ryan O’Neal or Burt Reynolds – could star in the film.”
Winkler smiled again, recalling Stallone’s surprise decision.
“Sly had not a buck to his name at that time,” he said. “But he refused to sell it for $250,000.”
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.